The lone survivor of an IRA massacre of 10 Protestant workmen believes state agents may have been involved in the attack, a coroner’s court has heard.
A lawyer for Alan Black made the claim as preliminary proceedings got under way ahead of a new inquest into the Kingsmill shootings in 1976.
Ten textile workers were shot dead by the side of a road near the Co Armagh village after masked gunmen flagged down the minibus they were travelling home from work in.
The killers asked all the occupants of the vehicle what religion they were.
The only Catholic worker was ordered away from the scene and the 11 remaining workmates were then gunned down.
Only Mr Black survived, despite being shot 18 times.
At the first preliminary inquest hearing in Belfast’s Old Town Hall, barrister Eugene McKenna, representing Mr Black, told Northern Ireland’s senior coroner John Leckey that his client suspected state involvement.
“Mr Black believes there may have been agents of the state involved in the attack itself,” he said.
Mr Leckey said he had read Mr Black’s account of what unfolded on the day and had been shocked.
“It’s difficult really to take in the horror that he experienced,” he said.
The coroner added: “This was one of the most horrific incidents in the so-called Troubles and I’m sure not only for Mr Black, but for the families (of the dead), the horror of what happened is still very much to the forefront of their minds.”
No-one has ever been convicted of the murders. There were 12 men in the gang that committed the attack.
The 10 men who died were John Bryans, Robert Chambers, Reginald Chapman, Walter Chapman, Robert Freeburn, Joseph Lemmon, John McConville, James McWhirter, Robert Samuel Walker and Kenneth Worton.
The court heard that Richard Hughes, the Catholic man who managed to escape the carnage, has since died.
The IRA never admitted responsibility for the murders but an investigation by the police’s Historical Enquiries Team (HET) three years ago found that members of the republican organisation did perpetrate the attack, motivated purely by sectarianism.
Northern Ireland’s Attorney General, John Larkin, ordered the fresh inquest last year after a long campaign by bereaved relatives. Explaining his decision, Mr Larkin said new evidence had emerged through the HET probe.
At this morning’s hearing, Mr Leckey said part of the inquest’s role was to try to identify who carried out the shootings.
“I would expect to be apprised of whatever evidence is available arising from the initial police investigation and any police investigation since as to who was responsible,” he said.
The coroner also ordered any forensic exhibits which had not already been re-examined as part of the HET investigation to be tested again.
“My direction is that if exhibits have not recently been forensically re-examined that should happen now and I should be advised of the results and outcome as soon as that’s known,” he said.
Mr Black sat with relatives of the victims in the packed public gallery of Court One for this morning’s short hearing.
Ken Boyd, representing the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), told the coroner that detectives had 10 lever arch files relating to the case.
He said the first phase of reviewing and security-vetting the papers would be completed by May, but indicated that checks on potentially sensitive documents could take longer.
Mr Leckey, who said he did not anticipate much sensitive material being contained in the files, told Mr Boyd he would like to get the papers disclosed to the next of kin as soon as was practical.
Fiona Doherty, representing one of families, had urged the coroner to let relatives get sight of papers when they were released to him.
The coroner replied: “I am conscious how long ago this terrible atrocity happened. People aren’t getting any younger, family members are ageing - clearly there’s a need for the inquest to happen sooner rather than later.”
But Mr Leckey highlighted that Kingsmill was far from the only “legacy” inquest his office was dealing with. The Coroner’s Court is in the process of hearing 45 historic inquests relating to 73 deaths.
“The resources available to us are inadequate to deal with those inquests in a timely fashion,” he said.
The coroner expressed hope that, with a “manageable” workload of only 10 files, the inquest could be heard in the “relatively near future”.
Mr Leckey said he would also write to Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan asking for copies of any files the Irish police had on the shootings.
A lawyer for the Police Ombudsman told the coroner that it had received a complaint about the conduct of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) both before and after the attack and it would be commencing an investigation into the allegations at the end of this year - a probe that could take a further two years.
The victims were travelling from their workplace in Glenanne home to Bessbrook when the mini-bus was flagged down.
Outside the court today, Mr Black hailed the first hearing as a “great stride forward”.
He also praised the attitude of Mr Leckey.
“His sympathies seem to lie with the families and us, which didn’t really happen before from the authorities,” said Mr Black.
“So now we feel we have the sympathy of the coroner on our side.”
Asked if he thought the inquest would provide the answers he wanted, he said: “I do - we’ve got to think positive on this one.”
Karen Armstrong, whose brother Mr McConville was killed, was at the forefront of the campaign for the new inquest.
“Finally after so long we just feel that at last we have got to this position now where there will be a search for the truth and that’s what we want above all,” she said after the hearing had finished.
“The truth has to come first and everybody has to be honest and has to give the information they have got for this to move forward and for total honesty and truth to come out.”
She added: “Thirty eight years is a long time and none of us live forever - so we demand the truth.”
Stormont Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy, who is from Bessbrook and is an Ulster Unionist Assembly member for Newry and Armagh, accompanied the families to court.
“We are satisfied that the coroner was very sympathetic to everyone present, particularly to Alan Black and the relatives,” he said.
“The coroner has indicated that he would like the matter expedited as quickly as possible and after 38 long years that’s what I want as someone from Bessbrook and on behalf of the families and the sole survivor.”